Fears that Festival ‘Referendum Ban’ panders to No campaign


  By a Newsnet reporter
The decision to exclude the independence referendum from next year’s Edinburgh Festival has caused anger and concern amongst some artists and journalists in Scotland.
Dismay and bewilderment followed a surprise announcement this weekend from the festival director, Sir Jonathan Mills who said that next year’s festival will not commission any performances about the 2014 referendum debate.

Instead the central themes will include the First World War commemorations which begin one week before the festival itself starts and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games which will have just ended.

Speaking at the weekend, Mills insisted the decision was taken in order to ensure the festival’s political neutrality.

He told Scotland on Sunday: “We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists.  It is important that it remains that.”

However the decision has bewildered and angered artists and journalists alike with many questioning the logic behind the it.

Concern has also been expressed that by refusing to officially acknowledge the independence referendum, the festival event itself risks being seen as supporting the No campaign and endorsing ‘no change’.

Speaking to the Guardian, playwright David Greig said: “I am confused and worried that he appears to be withdrawing his festival from the debate; but in fact withdrawal is itself a kind of entry.  Saying you are not doing things about the independence referendum: I’m not even sure what that means – you might take it as a reinforcement of the status quo.”

Greig also pointed out that one of the central themes being embraced by Mills was the politically loaded First World War celebrations being promoted by the UK government that are scheduled to start the day after the closing ceremony of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

“The first world war commemoration is part of a nationwide marking of the war that seems to have come largely from the Conservatives, and I am troubled by its motives,” said the playwright.

There was more anger and bafflement on social media with the editor of Holyrood magazine Mandy Rhodes tweeting: “How could one of world’s biggest arts festivals based in Scotland possibly ignore the biggest political decision to take place in Scotland?”

Ms Rhodes was joined by artist Alan Bissett who tweeted: “Edinburgh Fest 2014 won’t be hosting show on Scottish indy but WILL be tackling First World War ‘commemoration’. Sigh”

A spokesman for the pro-union campaign group Better Together refused to criticise the decision to exclude the referendum from the festival, telling the Times: “There won’t be any shortage of drama and theatre this time next year, even if it’s not taking place at the festival.”

The decision to officially include the First World War as one of the festival themes follows growing concern that the events planned by the Westminster government will be used in order to promote the kind of flag waving scenes that accompanied the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics.

In June this year UK Culture Secretary Maria Miller confirmed that a series of Olympic style cultural events will be staged in order to mark the centenary of the conflict that led to the deaths of almost sixteen million people, including one million allied servicemen.

Miller said: “In much the same way as culture played a huge part in the Olympics, we think it is vital that in a national programme of such importance that the cultural element is at the fore of our commemorations.”

One of the chairs of the Great War centenary cultural programme board is Jenny Waldman, who produced the London Olympics cultural events which were designed to be “very deliberately British”.

Speaking last October when he officially announced details of the commemorations, Prime Minister David Cameron said they would be like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, that: “captures our national spirit in every corner of the country, something that says something about who we are as a people”.

In June, a UK government source, in reference to the commemorations, told the Sunday Telegraph: “We have seen in recent years that communities across the UK are really at their best when they are brought together with feelings of patriotism and history.  We saw this with the Jubilee, the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Olympics.”

Earlier this year the Scottish government announced its own series of events to commemorate the centenary of the start of the Great War.

Speaking at the time, First Minister Alex Salmond said: “The events in 2014 to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War will not be a celebration in Scotland, but a commemoration of the servicemen and women who paid the ultimate price in defence of our country.

“Scotland’s war memorials – from the magnificent to the more modest – pay tribute to those fallen and will be an important part of the commemorations in communities the length and breadth of Scotland during 2014.”